As a reader of Green Talk, my guess is that you’re concerned about how the environment affects your health.
You probably know that toxic chemicals and other environmental hazards can make people ill and you want to minimize your exposures. You may even eat organic, grow your own pesticide-free veggies, use non-toxic cleaning products and avoid consumer products containing BPA and phthalates.
Reducing Our Toxic Exposure
But it isn’t enough. We should do reduce our individual exposures as much as possible, but did you know that even the most conscious green consumer is still at risk?
The truth is that it’s impossible to avoid toxics completely. They’re everywhere in the environment and there is nowhere on the planet that is uncontaminated. In fact. some of the highest levels of pollution are in the Arctic, many thousands of miles away from any direct sources. They are carried there by trans-oceanic air currents.
We are all exposed to hundreds of chemicals every day. There are about 80,000 registered for use in the U.S. and about 2,000 new ones are added each year. Amazingly, the vast majority have not been adequately tested for their safety. Most that have been studied are hazardous. In fact, about 180 diseases and disabilities have been linked with exposure to pollutants, including asthma, cancer, heart disease, birth defects, reproductive problems, and developmental and learning disabilities. According to the World Health Organization nearly one-quarter of all human illness is due to poor environmental quality. Tragically, the proportion is even higher for children – about one-third.
So the chances are that you or someone you love, has an environmentally related disease.
Choosing to be green is good, but we also need strong laws and regulations that will protect everyone, such as the new Safe Chemicals Act supported by Anna, this blog’s creator and author.
Role of the Environmental Health Movement
Thankfully, for the past 35 years there’s been a social movement working to prevent environmentally-related diseases. The environmental health movement was born in 1978, when Lois Gibbs organized her neighbors to protest the health effects of hazardous wastes leaking from an abandoned dumpsite in Love Canal, New York.
Since then, it’s grown into a national and international movement. About 10,000 environmental health organizations and people are listed on WISER, a worldwide social networking website for sustainability. There are almost 4,500 members in about 80 countries and all 50 states in the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.
Putting human health at the center of concern distinguishes the environmental health movement from other branches of environmentalism. Unlike most environmentalists, who emphasize the natural world, the environmental health movement shines a spotlight on human health and well-being. This may sound like a small difference, but it changes everything because it humanizes environmental issues. By drawing attention to the effects of the environment on living, breathing people, the environmental health movement is intentionally getting very personal.
Whether it’s a cancer survivor talking about how she copes with daily life or a mom talking about her child’s learning disabilities, the stories of real people dealing with real illnesses make environmental issues much more tangible and immediate to the public.
This approach has made the environmental health movement successful. Working mostly at the local level, activists have organized countless communities to protest abandoned toxic waste dumps, oppose new hazardous facilities, raise awareness about local disease clusters and draw attention to environmental injustice.
More importantly, it’s won numerous legislative victories at the state and local levels. Over 900 toxics policies were proposed or enacted in the U.S. between 1990 and 2009, and between 2003 and 2011, 18 states passed 71 chemical safety laws.
So far, the U.S. environmental health movement hasn’t received much public recognition. Perhaps this is because it’s grown up in the shadow of the environmental movement, or because it’s deliberately targeted state and local government laws, rather than federal legislation. But make no mistake, this social movement is committed, vibrant and strong, and it’s helping to build a healthy world for everyone.
Kate Davies, MA, DPhil, is the author of a new book called The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement. She is core faculty in the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University Seattle and clinical associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. She has been active on environmental health for 35 years in the U.S., Canada and other countries.
- Wake Up! Join Healthy Child, Healthy World to Make our World Safe for Our Kids
- Demand Stronger Environmental Guidelines for Dioxin
- Protect Unborn Children from Toxic Chemicals. Sign the Declaration.
- Safe Chemical Reform. Lend Your Voice to Say It’s Time Congress.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Lessons Learned